New Orleans is the USA’s most Caribbean town, in part because, in the wake of the Haitian Revolution, it welcomed some 15,000 refugees (White colonists, free people of color and enslaved people) from the French colony of Saint-Domingue between 1791 and 1810.
In 1791, enslaved people in the French colony of Saint-Domingue started a rebellion. This was the first act of the Haitian Revolution which, on January 1, 1804, was to give birth to the Republic of Haiti, the first Black republic in the Americas. Fleeing the violence of the confrontations, tens of thousands of White colonists and free people of color, sometimes accompanied by the people they enslaved, spread across the Atlantic region, forming a substantial diaspora united by bonds of family and friendship, by keeping up correspondence, and by the comings and goings among various sanctuaries. Initially concentrated in the Caribbean (especially in Santo Domingo, Cuba and Jamaica) and in ports on the Atlantic coast of America, they came together again in New Orleans, just as it joined the USA, having been sold by Napoleon.
This group, consisting of colonists (White and free people of color) and enslaved people, made the population of the town more than double during the first decade of the 19th century, having a deep and lasting influence on the society and culture of New Orleans.
By founding and running the city’s first newspapers (Le Moniteur de la Louisiane
, Le Télégraphe
, Le Courrier de la Louisiane
, L’Ami des Lois
(of which several copies are available on Gallica) or La Lanterne Magique
), and writing for the entire press (Le Propagateur Catholique
ou La Lorgnette
), the refugees had a lasting influence on the society and political life of their host town.
Along with their descendants, they were also involved in the formation of a large number of educational establishments, even founding New Orleans’s first higher education institutions: the Collège d’Orléans (founded in 1805) and the Medical College of Louisiana (founded in 1883), later renamed Tulane University.
Their role was particularly important in the fields of law (for example in the drafting of the Code Civil in 1808 and its revised version of 1828), medicine (the treatment of yellow fever, among others) and artistic life. They played a key role in the development of infrastructures for the arts and culture. They founded the first theatres (Théâtre d’Orléans, Théâtre St. Philippe) and an opera house, and many of the town’s artists, actors, musicians and poets were from refugee backgrounds.
The free refugees of color were also key actors in this fundamental cultural, religious and political progress. For example, they participated in the foundation of the order of the Sœurs de la Sainte Famille and many poets responsible for unique works about this 19th-century town, including a collective publication entitled Les Cénelles, were free people of color. Second generation free refugees of color were also an influential group, known for their education and political activism.
As militants even before the Civil War, they were to influence political life until the end of the 19th century, having launched the first civil rights movement just after the start of the Civil War. The Roudanez brothers (Louis-Charles and Jean Baptiste) founded a newspaper, L’Union
(1862-1864), Louis-Charles then set up La Tribune de la Nouvelle-Orléans
, the first African-American daily paper in the USA (1864-1868), known for its radical outlook. (Library of Congress). Their role should also be noted in establishing the Amis du Suffrage Universel (in 1865), the Louisiana chapter of the National Equal Rights League and the Comité des Citoyens (in 1891), an activist committee which backed Homer Plessy’s unsuccessful attempts to end racial segregation on the railways, which resulted in the Supreme Court decree Plessy v. Ferguson (1898), ushering in almost sixty years of institutional segregation across the country.
The archives of New Orleans contain many testimonials to the life and influence of these refugees, for example correspondence, including the Sainte-Gême Familly Papers (MSS 100, The Historic New Orleans Collection), or the Lambert Family Papers (MS 244, Howard Tilton Memorial Library, Special Collections, Tulane University).
Among the notable collections which shed light on the destinies of these refugees, including their places of exile are the registers of allowances and aid to refugees, the originals of which are conserved at the Archives nationales d'Outre-Mer in Aix-en-Provence, but which can be consulted, as full microfilmed copies, at the BNF.
Published in may 2021